The French army has said some of its troops have deployed in Kidal, the last major rebel-held settlement in Mali. According to local Malian officials, the settlement's airport is the first major target.
French army spokesman Thierry Burkhard said on Wednesday that its forces were vying for control of the airport in the eastern Malian town of Kidal.
"We established a presence in Kidal overnight and this morning are securing control of the airport," Colonel Burkhard told the Reuters news agency. "The operations are ongoing."
Kidal, home to roughly 25,000 people according to a 2009 census, is the last major Malian settlement under rebel control. French-led troops have re-captured cities and towns including Gao, Diabaly, Konna and Timbuktu since Mali's former colonial power decided to intervene in the conflict on January 11.
Kidal's airport is to the southeast of the town, which is situated a little less than 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Mali's northeastern border with Algeria.
Malian security sources and town officials said that the airport was already under French control.
"I can confirm it. They arrived late last night and they deployed in four planes and some helicopters," said Haminy Belco Maiga, president of the regional assembly of Kidal.
Fast, fleeting French mission
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a newspaper interview published in the Wednesday edition of the "Parisien" that the military was planning to make swift gains in Mali - mentioning the last two major settlements reclaimed by French and Malian forces.
"It was always part of the plan to liberate Gao and Timbuktu very quickly," Fabius said. "Now, it's up to African countries to pick up the baton. We decided to take the necessary measures to succeed in this mission and make progress. But the French presence is not there for the long haul. We are leaving quickly."
A contingent of 8,000 regional soldiers from member countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is envisioned for Mali, but financial and logistical limitations have meant that only a fraction of the force has as yet been deployed.
To that end, international donors gathered in Addis Ababa on Tuesday, pledging just over $455 million (337 million euros) for security efforts in Mali. It was not immediately clear, however, how much of the funds were destined for military operations specifically.
The regional force, known as AFISMA, also incorporates a contingent of troops from non-ECOWAS member Chad, some of whom are already on the ground in Mali.
msh/hc (AFP, Reuters)
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